How we became the most improved school in 2012


Oasis Academy Brightstowe became the most improved state school in 2012. Principal Matt Butler discusses the strategies that have helped to turn things around.

Brightstowe is an academy in north west Bristol, serving a mainly White community with above average levels of deprivation. A third of students are eligible for free school meals (FSM) and 70 per cent are from the most deprived neighbourhoods in the country.

When I became principal in 2010, there were low levels of attainment, with 60 per cent of students reading below their chronological age and only 29 per cent gaining five A* to C GCSEs including English and maths.

We immediately made some fundamental changes. In my first week, I introduced a zero tolerance behaviour policy: disrespecting teachers, disrupting lessons and using mobile phones in class all met with immediate consequences. This improved behaviour straightaway, giving teachers the chance to focus on quality teaching.

We also introduced The Base for all year 7 students, a separate part of the academy where its youngest members have most of their lessons. Primary teachers were recruited to focus on those who arrived with reading levels below their chronological age. Literacy outcomes for each new year 7 have been very strong, with the average student improving by more than one level of reading during the year.

Changes focused on encouraging both students’ learning and staff’s teaching: a full-time educational psychologist was brought on board to run the inclusion department and the school day was altered. I wanted to keep students more focused, so we changed the length of lessons to make them snappier, reducing them from 100 minutes to one hour. 

We also changed the organisational structure, replacing subject departments with a small number of faculties that focused on English Baccalaureate (EBacc) outcomes, and replacing heads of department with lead teachers who focused on teaching and learning.

Despite these efforts, the 2011 GCSE results saw the proportion achieving five A* to C GCSEs including English and maths move from 29 to just 30 per cent. We realised that focused interventions for year 11s were needed.

The year 11 interventions were the result of significant attention to detail at each stage. Students’ individual needs were identified using tools developed by the PiXL Club, an organisation dedicated to developing and sharing best practice.

We used their analysis spreadsheets to monitor the progress of every student, looking at their projected grades and the fine-level data to see how close they were to grade boundaries and where the gaps in attainment were.

This information was then discussed at fortnightly “raising achievement” meetings where leadership members discussed every student in year 11. Their progress, their needs and interventions were reviewed and decisions made there and then. 

I firmly believe this attention to detail helped some students achieve amazing things. Last year we had one young lady who had been in care all her life. She had incredibly low self-esteem and this affected her attitude to learning. She would regularly just give up and literally walk out of classes. 

However, after-school booster classes in English and maths, motivational trips to universities hosted by PGCE students, and one-to-one tutorials instead of normal classes helped her to achieve 12 A* to C GCSEs  including English and maths. And all that from a girl predicted nothing more than Ds.

The one-to-ones, with their use of Covey scoreboards and past papers, had a particularly high impact on selected students. One-to-ones have a significant nurturing effect, building confidence by allowing a student to ask any questions and get immediate feedback.

We also ensured that the whole year received teaching appropriate to their learning needs by resetting classes each term based on examination results, and rewarding hard work and achievement in a variety of ways, from merit badges to vouchers and bacon butties! 

A mentor scheme encouraged peer support, with mentors being rewarded when their mentees passed an exam. This attention to detail went all the way to the exam room, with students getting a banana and a bottle of water on their desks to improve concentration.

There is also a significant emphasis on the core subjects at Brightstowe. In 2008, I visited a number of US charter schools and was struck that they typically teach English and maths every day.

As a result of this, we changed the academy’s curriculum to allow for more teaching time in English and maths. This time was found by integrating some subjects into other areas of the curriculum: drama is now part of English and dance taught as part of PE.

This change was controversial and there was some opposition from parents and staff. We appreciated these concerns, but persevered because of a belief that focusing on the foundations of English and maths is vital for our students. 

Children living in areas of high deprivation, such as many in Brightstowe’s intake, tend to have lower levels of literacy and numeracy. To benefit from a broad curriculum, students should to be able to read, write, and count. Seeing this policy working in charter schools also gave us confidence too.

It is still early days, but we have seen evidence that improvements are being made. This year we have a young man who started the year on an F in maths. Only ever predicted an E, Joe has worked with the team and the one-to-one tutor with a real intent and he achieved a B in his March exam. 

In individual cases it is so often about belief. Once you have created that in a young person, adding in the required learning is, while not easy, always achievable.

The impact of these changes were made clear when BrighTstowe became the most improved school in the country in 2012. Results moved from 30 per cent of students achieving at least five GCSEs at A* to C with English and maths to 62 per cent. 

We are very proud of our work with year 11s, but this does not tell the whole story. For example, we introduced the “Brightstowe Meet and Greet Ten”, a series of steps that teachers work through at the start of the class, such as lining up outside the classroom, checking uniforms, and a focused activity on the board as students sit down. Changes like that have improved the culture in the school and students have responded very positively.

The improvements have also benefitted those students most at risk of underachievement – 45 per cent of FSM students achieved five A* to C GCSEs including English and maths while 23 per cent of low-achievers also achieved this benchmark, both figures well above national averages. Similarly strong outcomes were achieved for progress measures for these groups. This success looks to be repeated in the coming years. It is projected that 80 per cent of the current year 10 group are on track to get five GCSEs at A* to C with English and maths.

Fundamental to me is that an academy has a strong inspirational vision, an accountable and straight-forward organisational structure, and clear and measurable expectations for all individuals.

  • Matt Butler left his career as a British Airways executive in 2003 to become a teacher. He trained with the Future Leaders programme and became principal of Oasis Academy Brightstowe in Bristol in 2010.

Future Leaders
The Future Leaders Trust is a charity which works to raise the achievement of children, regardless of background. It provides a range of leadership initiatives, including the Future Leaders programme, designed to develop inspirational and effective school leaders to make the greatest possible impact in challenging schools. Visit or follow them on Twitter @FutureLeadersCT
CAPTION: Most improved: Headteacher Matt Butler has overseen a dramatic turnaround in results and outcomes at Brightstowe



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